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Washington Park left at the altar — again

Ald. Willie Cochran. | Sun-Times file photo

Ten years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley chose Washington Park for construction of a 95,000-seat collapsible stadium for a 2016 Summer Olympic Games Chicago would never hold. Rio de Janeiro won the games scheduled to begin next month.

On Wednesday, Washington Park was left at the altar — again.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle chose Jackson Park as the site for the Obama Presidential Center and Library.

Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, was thrilled but not surprised to learn that Jackson Park had won the presidential library sweepstakes.

“It’s a wonderful thing for the children of Chicago and a wonderful thing for families because they feel safe in Jackson Park. They tell us by the numbers. We have people from all over the world who come to Jackson Park to see the Museum of Science and Industry,” McCurry said.

“It’s a place President and Mrs. Obama are familiar with. It’s also beautiful,” she said. “It’s close to the lakefront and has wonderful natural areas. Beaches will be close to the library. There are wonderful bicycle paths. You can make a day of it and ride through the park. We’re a great place to be. It’s a safe community and it’s the President’s community.”


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Although Washington Park would have been more accessible to riders using the CTA’s Green line, McCurry argued that Jackson Park is “wonderfully served” by mass transit.

“Thousands of people come here every day. We have three bus lines: the No. 6 Jeffery Express; the No. 10 Museum of Science & Industry; and the No. 55 Garfield Blvd. We have two trains: the Illinois Central and the South Shore line. We have a wonderful bicycle path built for the 1893 World’s Fair. All come directly to the site. We have some of the best transportation in the city,” McCurry said.

In fact, the CTA says there are even more bus lines with stops at Jackson Park — 10 in all.

McCurry said she was not at all concerned about the idea of losing park space to the Obama library.

“Our park is a huge park with lots of open space. This will just make better use of the space we have. If the presidential library is a way to get more kids into nature and green space and convince them to start looking at themselves as being leaders, it is a totally wonderful thing,” she said.

Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) couldn’t lose either way. His South Side ward includes Jackson Park and Washington Park.

“You’re gonna be happy for one and disappointed for another, no matter what the choice is,” Cochran said.

“It’s a big disappointment for a second time for the residents of Washington Park,” he said. “But it just demonstrated the value of the community. And that value has not been lost by the fact that they’ve been a bridesmaid twice. All it does is give us an opportunity to expand that community and prepare for development without dominating influences.”

Cochran noted that the city recently won a $25 million grant to improve a CTA station near Washington Park and that plans are in the works to build a performing arts center nearby.

The University of Chicago also has been investing in land Washington Park, Cochran said, “Now, we want to see structures and programming.”

“Development is regional. I cannot conceive of the Washington Park community not benefiting from the presidential library even if it is in the community of Woodlawn,” Cochran said.

“Washington Park has land and location. It’s a beautiful park with great surrounding communities of Bronzeville, Hyde Park and Woodlawn,” he said. “It’s a growth opportunity. The timing is right for that to take place.”

Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, could not be reached for comment. Nor could Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) or Sophia King (4th), whose wards also are affected by the decision.

Last year, the City Council authorized the transfer of up to 21 acres of land in either Washington Park or Jackson Park from the Chicago Park District to the city.

The Jackson Park site involves roughly 20 acres that runs from Stony Island to Cornell and East Hayes Drive to the Midway Plaisance. The library design is to be led by New York husband-and-wife team Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed to replace only 5 of the acres lost to the Obama presidential library.

“Given that the building will deal with 4 to 5 acres, we will replace that, acre for acre, and make the open space whole . . . It’s specific to the building, and I think that’s the right way to go,” the mayor said on the day he introduced the land transfer to the City Council.

The Obamas have made it clear they want a campus surrounding their presidential library and museum.

Taking up to 20 acres in Jackson Park would help to create that campus feel.

While the land surrounding the building would technically remain “open,” it would undoubtedly have some restrictions. For example, you couldn’t plop down a barbecue or a baseball diamond.

Still, Emanuel said then he had no qualms about replacing only the 5 acres where the library building sits.

“We’re not taking it out. It’s still gonna be open land. We’re addressing the concerns [about] where the building is, and that’s the right way to approach it,” the mayor said.

If not for Chicago’s stunning first-round flame-out in the 2016 Olympic sweepstakes, Washington Park would have been the site for an Olympic stadium hosting track and field events and the opening and closing ceremonies.

When the Olympic torch was extinguished, the 85,000 above-ground seats would have been dismantled.

An “amphitheater stadium” — lushly landscaped with 10,000 seats below grade — would have remained for concerts, cultural events and to position Chicago to host premier track and field events.

“Washington Park is . . . at the west end of the Midway. It connects with Jackson Park. It’s one of the great jewels of the park system at the turn of the century. Our goal is to return it to its original luster . . . and to make this park come alive for the community,” Chicago 2016 chairman Pat Ryan said on the day the stadium plan was announced.

“We look at this as a combination urban legacy to improve the Mid-South Side and to create a sports legacy.”

Daley added, “The best possible site would be downtown. Let’s be realistic. But if you’re going to really have a long legacy for the city, you have to move it out into communities.”

Now, it’ll be up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to find another way to appease a community disappointed for a second time.